The following is an excerpt from my new book, Lost in Startuplandia: Wayfinding for the Weary Entrepreneur.
Focus is increasingly hard to come by in today’s world. We’re bombarded by constant stimulation coming from every direction. For all my fellow business owners out there, we don’t have the mental bandwidth to deal with all these distractions and run our business in an optimal fashion. We need to focus — but where can we find it?
I’m not an expert, but throughout the years I’ve spent navigating my own headspace and running multiple businesses, I developed a few strategies for optimal focus.
Here are eight of my favorites.
#1: Stay well hydrated.
Sounds easy enough, but drinking enough water can be daunting. The rule of thumb is half our body weight in ounces of water. For me, that’s sixty-four ounces of water daily.
Coffee and caffeinated beverages don’t count, as they are diuretics. Filling up a large water bottle and leaving it on our desk can help a ton. Why? When we are thirsty, we are distracted. Evolution has primed our brains to take thirst seriously.
Bonus: We’re less hungry when we are hydrated, so water could help our diets.
#2: Create a nightly sleep ritual.
When we don’t get enough sleep, we can’t focus. Few entrepreneurs get optimal sleep. However, it’s a habit that needs to be established and then continuously protected.
The rule is eight to ten hours for adults. The best way to do this is to create strict bedtimes and wake-up times. To bed by 9:00 p.m., up by 6:00 a.m. is mine.
You can also try creating a nighttime ritual. This has been huge for me.
I turn off all electronics thirty to forty-five minutes before bed and charge them in another room. I like to listen to a mellow podcast. It’s like being read to sleep.
#3: Practice honesty.
Honesty is hard, even excruciating at times. Why bother?
Honesty isn’t the best policy only because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a miraculous way to free up our brain power and focus. Managing tiny half-truths is every bit as mentally taxing as managing whoppers. Our brains are constantly trying to remember what we said and to whom.
When we are honest all the time, we don’t have to manage anything. We free up countless brain cycles.
Three years ago, I committed to being rigorous with my honesty. Very soon thereafter, my brain got quiet. The chatter damn near stopped. It’s felt like a flipping miracle.
#4: Take a news fast.
Giving up the news for five days — televised and online — can change how we feel. I’ve found there is a difference between obsessing over current events and staying current.
Today, I use my Twitter feed to curate newsfeeds from wire services like Reuters and AP, and then a couple of international sources. I check it only when I have downtime, such as waiting in line. By giving ourselves a break from the news, we’re freeing up our subconscious to be able to concentrate on solving the actual problems close at hand.
#5: Block out all messaging for 90 minutes during the work day.
We live in a 24/7, always-on culture. When we are always on, we are killing our ability to think. Thinking requires mental rest. I keep the first 90 minutes in the morning clear of all messaging so that I can focus on the hard stuff first and get myself organized.
#6: Address physical pain.
Many of us, particularly as we age, start to experience chronic pain. This can be the old knee injury that comes back to haunt us or a hangover from a killer workout.
When our bodies don’t feel right, it steals our ability to focus. Our brain goes into hyperdrive and focuses on the pain rather than our task at hand. Addressing physical pain can mean scheduling a doctor’s appointment; working with a physical therapist, chiropractor, or acupuncturist; doing yoga; or buying an ergonomic desk chair.
#7: Thank unfriendly people.
We can’t avoid unfriendly people. Too often, we get triggered and ruminate on these unpleasant interactions. Why was Bob so short with me? Why did that guy flip me off? People today are so rude! This kind of mental chatter kills our mojo.
When we catch ourselves ruminating, celebrate! We caught ourselves and that takes a good deal of self-awareness. Once aware, we need to release the thought. Start journaling and dump the upset onto the page. Get specific about the incident.
We must ask ourselves: Why am I so upset?
Once we think we’ve got it, we write down, “I want to thank you [insert name or description (“guy in car”)] for helping me realize that I want to be kind to myself and others today. I am going to do this [insert act of kindness] for [insert name] to repay my debt.”
Now go do it! (And then back to work!)
#8: Find the takeaway in negative feedback.
Negative feedback, even when it’s well-crafted constructive feedback, can be awful to receive. Once we receive it, we tend to ruminate: How could they say that? They don’t know me! It’s easy to write it off and justify our lack of listing, as most advice, including negative feedback, is for the person giving it — not us.
However, there can be gold in there.
So, we should try looking for that nugget of wisdom and ask ourselves: what is one takeaway I need to hear and act on? Then we need to be done with it and move on. If we find ourselves stewing anyway, tip #7 can help us deal with that.
For more advice on maintaining focus, you can find Lost in Startuplandia on Amazon.
E. Keller Fitzsimmons is a serial tech entrepreneur, artist, and mother of two. She is the cofounder of Custom Reality Services, a virtual reality (VR) production company whose first two projects, Across the Line (2016) and Ashe ’68 (2019), premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Keller is the recipient of the Silvertip PwC Entrepreneurship Award and Speech Technology’s Luminary Award. Her work has been published by Network Computing, InformationWeek, and Inc. An active angel investor, she serves on the technology committee for BELLE USA, a venture fund that invests in women-led startups. Originally trained as a classical archaeologist, Keller holds a master’s degree from Harvard University.